A Course on Love

Homily for Sunday, August 12, 2018
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Right here, right now, I am coming out… as a fan of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column.  The weekly column is, in the editors’ words, “about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood… any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading ‘Modern Love.’” “Modern Love” has no single columnist, nor even a group of columnists; rather, essays are submitted by the public and winners chosen by the editors.  Highlights from past years include essays such as: “Dear Dad: We’ve Been Gay a Really Long Time,” in which Mary Alice Hostetter details how, in their 60’s, she and her brother finally came out to their 95-year-old father.  (All went well.)  There was Elizabeth Covington’s “An Optimist’s Guide to Divorce,” in which she tells of the extraordinary grace with which her husband’s ex not only handled the divorce but befriended her, the new wife.  Then there was the somewhat predictable, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Mandy Len Catron’s essay on the so-called “36 questions.”  And there was the thoroughly unpredictable, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” for which countless husbands and wives probably still have not forgiven the author, Amy Sutherland, for being subjected by their spouses to exotic animal training techniques.  (That one went viral!)  Finally, if you’re looking for material with which to initiate a mass-cry event (as purportedly happened at the Times’ offices when they read it) there is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” a love letter in the form of a personal ad, published 10 days before Rosenthal died of ovarian cancer.  We’ll come back to that one in a bit…

But first I want to visit the column from two weeks ago, by one Mansoor Adayfi, who was a prisoner at Guantanamo for 14 years before his release in 2016.  Adayfi’s story is not the story of a romantic relationship, but the story of imagining and yearning for a romantic relationship.  Adayfi tells how the prisoners, to keep their minds engaged, arranged “classes” in which they took turns teaching each other.  Because they had no props, the classes required much imagination.  For example, when a former chef taught a cooking class, he asked his students to imagine the onions cooking—“Shhhh, shhhh,” he said, mimicking the sound of onions in the pan.  He asked students to imagine tasting the dish to see if it needed more salt.  He asked them to imagine cutting into the meat to see if it was done.

One of the older, married detainees, when he saw that the younger, single detainees wanted to know about women, decided to offer a course on marriage.  In the marriage course, the men did things like:

  • imagine what it might be like to be a woman
  • imagine the woman’s experience when she interacted with them, the men
  • imagine what it might be like for a woman to be in a forced marriage—not uncommon in Adayfi’s native Yemen
  • imagine what it would feel like to see and speak with a woman they loved, and how they would treat her
  • imagine what it might be like to love and to be loved by her
  • imagine being engaged and how they would act on their engagement day
  • Finally, the course concluded with one man being chosen as the groom, and the class singing and dancing a traditional Yemeni wedding celebration as if there had been a real marriage.

Adayfi concludes:

I am alone…  I haven’t yet found a woman to be my friend and my wife…  But… my hope is still alive… Thanks to my marriage class, I know I will one day be a good husband and loving father…  I have never been in love, but now I could feel its sweetness.

As it has for the last month, and as it will be for the remainder of August, today’s epistle lesson comes from the letter to the Ephesians.  Unlike the other epistles in the Pauline corpus, which were written to churches with close connections to the Jewish community, the epistle to the Ephesians was written to an entirely Gentile community.  The Ephesian Christians had no previous experience of: the Law, the Covenant, the prophets, God’s promises, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, or God’s love.  And the Ephesians certainly had no knowledge—no reference point whatsoever—regarding Jesus Christ.  So the author set out to teach them, to offer them a course on Jesus, as it were, a course that asked them to imagine Jesus and what it might be like to be in relationship with him.  The author is a masterful teacher.

  • In Ephesians, Jesus is “the Beloved,” which cues the Ephesians to imagine love: not only the loving relationship between Jesus and the Father, but also the loving relationship the Ephesians could have with Jesus.
  • Throughout Ephesians the word “love” appears again and again and again (as in today’s lesson: “As beloved children… live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”) By this repetition, the author roots the Ephesians’ imaginations in love.
  • The author uses beautiful images—of adoption and inheritance; of bringing far off people near; of making two groups into one; of breaking down walls that divide and of ending hostility—to further spark the Ephesians’ imaginations about love.
  • The author tells them that Jesus’ love for them is so great that he can restore them to life: once they were “dead,” but now they are “made… alive together in Christ;” once they were “asleep,” but now Christ has shone on them and they are awake.
  • And because divinely-inspired imagination is surely better than ours alone, in Ephesians the author prays for them, a beautiful prayer in chapter 3 that is… love: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend…what is the breadth and length and height and depth… to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

Ephesians is a course on love, a course that helps the Ephesians—helps us—to imagine Jesus and what it might be like to be in intimate relationship with him.

Ephesians issues us an invitation.

To say more about this invitation, I want to return to Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s “You May Want to Marry My Husband.”  In her essay (which is a love letter in the form of a personal ad) Rosenthal speaks of her husband, Jason:

He is an easy man to fall in love with; I did it…  He is a sharp dresser…  He is fit and enjoys keeping in shape…  Man, can he cook!…  He loves listening to live music…  He is a wonderful father…  If you are looking for a dreamy, let’s-go-for-it travel companion, Jason is your man…  Did I mention he is incredibly handsome?  I am going to miss looking at that face of his.

And so on and so forth.

At the end of her essay, standing out from the page like the gaping space of a missing tooth, was a half-column of negative space, several inches of bare newsprint.

Rosenthal explains:

I want more time with Jason.  I want more time with my children.  I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club [in Chicago].  But that is not going to happen…  The most genuine… gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.

I’ll leave this intentionally empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.

In Ephesians the author invites us to imagine Jesus and what it might be like to be in intimate relationship with him.  Were the right person to read Ephesians—or were anybody to read it with an open and receptive heart—I know whom you would find there.  Perhaps even now, like Mansoor, your hope is still alive, and you long to be in love and to feel its sweetness.  Perhaps even now, like Rosenthal, you hope for another love story to begin…  with you in it.  Perhaps even now, like the Ephesians, there is something that draws you to him, to “live in love, as Christ loved us.” Perhaps even now, as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve, I’ll stop, so that you can speak directly with him in the Prayers, and maybe hear him speaking directly with you—speaking words of love to you—in the Eucharist and beyond…


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